A Tale of Two Cities | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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A Tale of Two Cities | Book 2, Chapter 5 : The Jackal | Summary



Sydney Carton works hard in Mr. Stryver's law office, but when it comes to doing what it takes to improve himself, he has never been able to persist. His moods have always been up and down, and he is prone to depression. Stryver, however, has always achieved whatever he put his mind to. The narrator calls Sydney Carton a "good jackal" but not "a lion."

Carton and Stryver talk about their school days, which depresses Carton, so Stryver proposes a toast to Lucie Manette to lighten the mood. This just makes Carton more depressed. He even denies that Lucie is beautiful, and as he walks home he suddenly has a fleeting vision of what he could be if he followed his ambitions, persevered, and stopped carousing. He heads for his room, his "neglected bed," and bursts into tears. He is a good person with strong abilities and talent, and yet he can't seem to harness it and move forward. He is slowly being destroyed by his depression, unable to help himself.


Dickens uses his infamously detailed description style to portray the character of Sydney Carton for the reader. Carton's attitude is further explained by his current place in life. The narrator likens him to a jackal (a small doglike animal that may hunt in packs but frequently scavenges instead of hunting) rather than a lion: He is never the one who initiates action; he simply shows up to clean up the mess. He is always there to back up Stryver, but he's also always there to drink whatever Stryver is buying.

Carton is an interesting mix of self-sacrifice and desire to be a better person (although he denies it) alongside an inability to see how he could better himself or even attempt to better himself this late in life. He rues his youth, having wasted his time and energy on frivolous things instead of making a name for himself, and finds talk of that era depressing.

Dickens's description of Carton's depression is surprisingly modern. Instead of saying that Carton refuses to help himself, the narrator says that Carton is "incapable" of helping himself. The narrator sympathizes with Carton, describing the sight of Carton returning to his state of caring for nothing and no one, sobbing on his bed, as "no sadder sight." Even the sun rises sadly on Sydney Carton. His word choice is telling: Carton can't pull himself out of his despair. Dickens's understanding of Carton's condition is rooted in his own experiences with depression. He suffered from bipolar disorder, but as he grew older, this manifested itself increasingly as depression.

Despite his struggles with depression, alcoholism, and poor self-esteem, Carton is perhaps the greatest hero in the novel. It remains to be seen how he will live up to this role; in this chapter, it certainly seems an unlikely one for him.

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